Break out your Granny Smiths, your Macintoshes and your Pink Ladies, friends. It’s time to celebrate Johnny Appleseed’s birthday!
For the last few years, my girls and I have thrown an apple party on or around September 26th (which is Johnny Appleseed’s birthday, but you probably already knew that), in honor of the man and his work. Okay, that admittedly didn’t start out to be the case. In the beginning, we just happened to rent the Disney film bearing his name from Blockbuster as part of our Friday Family Night diversions one week. Now I already knew this film backwards and forwards, having been raised on it by my mother and grandmother who to this day regularly invoke the song as a mealtime grace. My girls were immediately entranced by it, the hook being the apple party that occurs in about the middle of the short. It depicts an apple-centric harvest hoedown wherein the settlers dance, bob for apples, and sing an ode to the fruit and all of its derivatives: Apple pickles, oh so tasty, apple tarts and apple pasty, apple dumplings, not to mention applesauce… Watching these festivities with eyes as big as their feet, my cherubs turned to me as one and intoned: “Please, Mom…Can we have an apple party? PLEASE???” Always one to jump at any opportunity to fulfill my children’s innermost dreams and desires (especially when they are cheap), I consented and a tradition was born.
Yet what originated as an excuse to eat as much pie as we wanted has deepened considerably in meaning over time. Johnny Appleseed the short film is good clean fun to be sure, but we have learned that the man himself is a legend for a reason. Johnny Appleseed was not his real name, of course. He was born John Chapman, but since that doesn’t have nearly as good of a ring to it – and you can’t get anywhere as an American icon without a really catchy stage name – his peers assigned him the clever moniker by which we know him today. The bare facts about the man can be summed up thus: Johnny Appleseed created a practice of planting, developing, and distributing apple trees and nurseries for one reason alone: people needed it, and he knew the call lay on him to fill that need.
There are details that enhance the picture, of course. Johnny Appleseed provided renewable resources for healthy produce to those whose transportation would not otherwise have allowed it. He had the opportunity to profit greatly on a personal level from his work, but instead chose for himself profound simplicity (not poverty; hear me on that, for there is an important difference between the two). He promoted peace everywhere that he went, not only between people groups (often negotiating disputes between settlers and natives along his travels), but also between humanity and animals, and between humanity and God – all of this long before it was cool or politically correct. And, as the movie illustrates, Johnny Appleseed overcame the thorny problem of comparison; he was ordinary – some might even have said unimportant – but he did what he could with what he had and achieved a calling that was far bigger than himself.
Between you and me, none of that is even the best part. The best part is the seed itself. As my pastor pointed out just this past Sunday, there is a quote by Nelson Henderson which says, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” This is the story of Johnny Appleseed. He afforded health, homesteads, and happiness to every person whose life he touched – many of whom never met. He also afforded choice and prosperity to his family (even beyond his altruism and charity, Johnny Appleseed reportedly left an estate of over 1,200 acres of valuable nurseries to his sister), and all of this simply because he planted seeds consistenly and tirelessly for all of his life.
This is why we celebrate. For my girls, I can encourage them: Read your Bible, do your homework, practice your instruments, be kind to others, share your faith…Plant those seeds. For myself, I can find the last wisps of motivation in my heart to clean the house, wake up early for work, follow through on discipline, and sit at the computer for whatever endless hours it takes to produce something. Why? Because these seeds deposited into the ground of ourselves, our home, and our community may look like nothing right now – in fact, they may look like the smallest, driest, most undesirable things in the whole world in that moment – but they’re going to produce a harvest of righteousness someday…and of choice…and godliness…and prosperity…and peace.
So. Who wants to come over this week for a movie and a slice of pie?